It is estimated that human settlement on the Australian continent began between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, probably with the migration of people across land bridges and short sea crossings from what is now Southeast Asia. These early inhabitants may be the ancestors of modern Aboriginal Australians. At the time of European settlement in the late 18th century, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on respect for the land and belief in the Dreamtime. The inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands, which are of Melanesian origin, were originally horticulturists and hunter-gatherers. The coasts and waters of northern Australia were sporadically visited by fishermen from maritime Southeast Asia.
The arrival of the Europeans
The first European observation of the Australian continent and the first recorded European landing on the Australian continent are attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. In early 1606, he sighted the coast of the Cape York Peninsula and went ashore on 26 February on the Pennefather River near the modern town of Weipa in Cape York. The Dutch mapped the entire west and north coasts in the 17th century and named the mainland island “New Holland”, but made no attempt to colonise it. William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the northwest coast of New Holland in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return voyage. In 1770, James Cook sailed and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain. With the loss of its American colonies, the British government sent a fleet of ships, the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip in 1783 to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales. On 26 January 1788, a camp was established at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, and the flag was raised. This date became Australia Day, Australia’s bank holidays, although the British Crown Colony of New South Wales was not officially proclaimed until 7 February 1788. The first colony led to the founding of Sydney and the exploration and settlement of other areas.
A British colony was established in 1803 in Van Diemen Land, now Tasmania, and became an independent colony in 1825. The United Kingdom officially claimed the western part of Western Australia (the Swan River Colony) in 1828. Separate colonies were established in parts of New South Wales: The Northern Territory was established in 1911 when it was separated from South Australia. South Australia was established as a “free province” – it was never a prison colony. Victoria and Western Australia were also established “free” but later accepted transported convicts. A campaign by settlers from New South Wales ended the transport of convicts to this colony; the last ship carrying convicts arrived in 1848.
The indigenous population, estimated at 750,000 to 1,000,000 in 1788, declined for 150 years after colonisation, mainly due to infectious diseases. Thousands more died as a result of border conflicts with settlers. A government policy of “assimilation” that began with the Indigenous Protection Act of 1869 resulted in many Indigenous children being removed from their families and communities – often referred to as the “Stolen Generations” – a practice that may also have contributed to the decline of the Indigenous population. After the 1967 referendum, the federal government was given the power to make laws affecting Aboriginal people. Traditional land ownership – Aboriginal title – was not recognised until 1992, when the High Court case Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2) overturned the legal doctrine that Australia was terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”) before European occupation.
A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Rebellion against mining royalties in 1854 was one of the earliest expressions of civil disobedience. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies were individually given responsible government to manage most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control over certain matters, including foreign policy, defence and international shipping.
On 1 January 1901, the federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting. The Commonwealth of Australia thus became a Dominion of the British Empire. The Federal Capital Territory (later renamed the Australian Capital Territory) was established in 1911 to house the future federal capital, Canberra. Melbourne was the temporary seat of government from 1901 to 1927, while Canberra was being built. The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian Government to the Federal Parliament in 1911. In 1914, Australia joined Britain in World War I, with the support of the outgoing Commonwealth Liberal Party and the new Australian Labour Party. Australians took part in many important battles on the Western Front. Of the approximately 416,000 people who served, about 60,000 were killed and 152,000 wounded. Many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation – their first major military action. The Kokoda Track campaign is seen by many as a similar event to the one that shaped the nation during World War II.
The 1931 Statute of Westminster formally ended most constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom. Australia passed it in 1942, but it was backdated to 1939 to confirm the validity of laws passed by the Australian Parliament during World War II. The shock of the United Kingdom’s defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion led Australia to see the United States as its new ally and protector. Since 1951, Australia has been an official military ally of the United States under the ANZUS Treaty. After the Second World War, Australia encouraged immigration from Europe. Since the 1970s and after the abolition of the White Australia Policy, immigration from Asia and other countries has also been encouraged. As a result, Australia’s demography, culture and self-image have changed. The last constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom were cut with the passage of the Australia Act 1986, which ended any British role in Australian state government and removed the possibility of appeal to the Privy Council in London. In a 1999 referendum, 55 per cent of voters and a majority in each state rejected the proposal to become a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Australian parliament. Since the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, foreign policy has placed increasing emphasis on relations with other Pacific nations while maintaining close ties with Australia’s allies and traditional trading partners.